Interview by Laura Chapnick and Meaghen Seagrave
Photography by Laura Chapnick
1) How did you become interested in illustration?
Growing up, I always loved to draw. My sister and I would spend our days doodling on old calendars, scraps of paper, and sometimes even on walls! My mother also enjoyed drawing in her spare time and my father, an artist, has been a huge influence on me. So, you could say that expressing myself through drawings has always been a part of my life and always felt very natural. However, I always imagined illustration as a hobby, something I could do whenever I had some spare time. Only after a few years working in the animation industry did I finally consider illustration as a possible career path.
2) Why did you decide to illustrate children’s books over other art mediums?
Of all the various subjects I could be illustrating, I have always been particularly drawn towards children. They are fascinating to observe, so spontaneous, hiding very little of what they think or how they feel, their body language so expressive. I find it to be such an exciting challenge to try to capture all of that in a few simple brush strokes. For that reason, it was an obvious decision for me to illustrate children books over any other medium.
3) What is the first thing you do when you sit down to create something?
When I am ready to start on a new book, I like to open my sketchbook and jump right into it. I think it’s important to empty my mind with all sorts of ideas onto paper, both the good and the bad, to get a feel of what I want to create. Once I have poured my creative juices out, I sift through everything that’s in front of me and slowly piece together what will become the world of my next project.
4) Where do you draw inspiration from?
I get inspiration from various places. I will get composition ideas from photography or movies. For characters, I get ideas by looking at people around me. I love people watching, and anyone I spot can become a potential character in my books. Someone walking on the street, someone standing in line in front of me at the grocery store, or sometimes even members of my family . . .
I also love to look at what other illustrators or painters do. I have an extensive collection of fabulous artists at home, and I always like to go through those books whenever I feel at a loss.
5) Describe your artistic process.
Usually, I will start by doing a lot of sketches to get a feel of my characters and the world they live in. Who are they, what’s their personality like, what kind of place do they live in? Once that’s sorted out, I start building the structure of the page and figure out what to illustrate on each page and the various compositions and pacing.
I like to keep the rough pass very quick and dirty, so that I have only a very loose template to work from once I am ready to go to final. At that stage, when I am ready to ink, I like to go straight ahead with very little planning. I find that the more I plan, the stiffer my drawing becomes . . . So, I prefer to jump right in and to some extent ‘improvise,’ so that my pieces feel as spontaneous as possible.
6) What are some of your favourite tools?
Over the years, I have tried many different drawing tools. To this day, I bounce back and forth between nib (a very fine one, size 102, so sharp it’s like drawing with a needle) and brush, and paint with watercolour. I used to colour picture books digitally, but I have recently made the jump and decided to do everything traditionally, from inking to painting. Watercolour is a medium I am still learning to control, but I love how it sometimes has a mind of its own and I welcome the happy mistakes.
7) Your next illustration project, the book When I Found Grandma, written by Saumiya Balasubramaniam, publishes this Spring. How was illustrating this book different from others you’ve worked on?
When Sheila Barry presented me with the manuscript two years ago, it instantly struck a chord with me. It brought me back twenty years to when I was a young teenager and my own grandmother came to visit for the first time from China. I remember feeling so excited at the prospect of finally reconnecting with such a big part of my life, and yet, at the same time, it was a real culture shock. The teenage girl I was was sometimes annoyed, short and impatient with my grandmother whom I didn’t always understand and who was bringing with her parts of China I had become completely disconnected from. Her visit was a memorable experience, which I relived while working on When I Found Grandma.
8) If readers could take one lesson from When I Found Grandma, what do you hope it will be?
Treasure your elders and treasure your culture. Often times we want to fit in so desperately that we forget that being different is what makes us valuable as human beings. So, hold onto those traditions and make sure that they live on in each passing generation.